"Anyone who feels neither responsibility towards the past nor desire to shape the future is someone who 'forgets', and I don't know how one can really get at such people and bring them to their senses." In these words, written in his prison cell in Tegel in February 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the task which we too have to face, fifty years after his execution in the concentration camp at Flossenburg.
Answering for the past is something which concerns even those born after the events. They also have a duty to form a clear opinion on the past and to draw the lessons from it. Anyone wishing to take part in shaping the future also has to accept responsibility for the past. Responsibility here does not mean assuming the blame for actions one had nothing to do with - could not possibly have, given one's age. Rather it means informing oneself of the historical facts and what lies behind them, being clear about the moral categories by which these facts are to be judged and applying these categories systematically to one's own present and future. It also means cultivating solidarity of remembrance with the victims of historical injustice and doing whatever is possible to ensure that nothing of the kind ever happens again.
For those of us who are Germans, the brutal Nazi regime in power from 1933 to 1945 requires taking particular responsibility for our past and drawing lessons from it for shaping the future. But this task is not confined to Germans, for remembrance of and solidarity with the victims of the Hitler tyranny do not stop at national borders. And we as Germans must acknowledge to our shame that such solidarity of remembrance has been more convincingly expressed elsewhere than it is in the country at the origin of the horror. While Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Memorial in Washington bear impressive witness to this, fifty years after the end of the war we in Germany have not yet managed to build a central memorial to the victims of Nazi tyranny. One reason is the argument about which groups are to be counted among the victims. It is in no way to detract from the uniqueness. of the Shoah, the genocide conducted against European Jews, to remember that Sinti and Roma, communists and homosexuals were also among the victims of the systematically planned campaign of murder. We cannot discriminate yet further against these groups by excluding them from our commemoration of the victims of Nazi tyranny.
As we seek to come to terms with the Nazi dictatorship and the second world war, the martyrs of that time are an important source of help. By martyrs I mean the people who in their efforts to help their persecuted fellow beings risked or actually forfeited their own lives. People who, for the sake of those persecuted and in danger, tried to put an end to the dictatorship, even if it meant using violent means. They can truly be called martyrs when, directly or indirectly, their commitment was a testimony of faith and that testimony lives on beyond their own death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of those martyrs. His life story and his literary legacy hold a special fascination for many people. Born in 1906, the son of a psychiatrist, he grew up in a large family that was open to the enlightened thinking of the day, and his surprising decision - alone among the eight children - to study theology did not mean he rejected contemporary thinking. Very early on Bonhoeffer's theology showed itself to be a critical examination of modernity. At the age of 21 he submitted a doctoral thesis entitled Sanctorum Communio: Eine dogmatische Untersuchung zur Soziologie der Kirche ("The Communion of Saints: A Dogmatic Enquiry into the Sociology of the Church"). The last part of the title identified him as a young theologian clearly anxious to engage in an exchange with the most progressive sciences of the day, in this case sociology.
Barely seventeen years later, while still a young man of 38, Bonhoeffer gave final form to his theology in fragments written in Hitler's prison. As one of the members of the conspiracy which sought to remove the dictator by force, he was imprisoned in Berlin-Tegel in April 1943. The theological thinking he developed during this captivity centred on the idea that the modern world has come of age and has freed itself from tutelage of every kind, including religion. Searching for a new understanding of the Christian faith that will do justice to this mature, self-confident world, Bonhoeffer does so not as someone striving for academic recognition, but as someone who has nothing further to expect from his own life. So the theme of his early years - the question of what form the Christian faith takes in the modern world - recurs in a somewhat altered form.
Between the two lies the journey from theologian to man of his time. Of crucial importance on this journey was Bonhoeffer's encounter with the Sermon on the Mount, the full force of which struck him in 1932, when he was 26, as though he were meeting the text for the first time. On the basis of the Sermon on the Mount, he came to know that the things really worth living for are justice and peace, for he saw this as the cause of Christ himself. From the first this conviction placed him in opposition to Hitler's tyranny and led him into resistance in the Confessing Church. His work in training young theologians for the Confessing Church led him to recognize the three steps of the Christian faith which he was later to formulate as prayer, doing the right and waiting for God's own time. He ruled out the possibility of escaping the catastrophe in Germany by seeking permanent refuge in North America. In August 1939, …